Thanks to the power of the internet, it's rare that an anime title (in this case an OVA full-length feature film) should manage to take me by surprise. And yet when Funimation's reissue of ADV Film's Blade of the Phantom Master showed up unannounced; that's exactly what happened. Based on a popular Korean manga, the anime incarnation has been around for several years now but hadn't made my short list of must-have properties... until now.
Coming in at a total runtime of 90 minutes, Blade of the Phantom Master occupies a single disc packaged in a standard-sized DVD case. The show wears an appropriate, if not slightly conservative TV MA (17+) rating due to some fairly graphic violent sequences (no nudity, sex, or particularly rough language however).
Language options are typical sub and dub meaning English and Japanese dialog tracks (presented in Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound) and English subtitles beneath either if desired.
Extras are quite robust and include a making of the video segment, storyboards, production sketches, interviews with the Japanese cast, original Japanese trailers and TV spots, clean opening and closing themes, and Funimation trailers.
The story begins in the scorching desert where lead character Munsu, an agent once obliged to a now-fallen kingdom (Jushin), meets up with a fellow traveler who actually ends up saving his life. It turns out Munsu has actually crossed paths with a young man on a camel who happens to be traveling to his homeland after having failed to acquire the skills necessary to save his girl from the clutches of a detested dictator.
Reluctant to get involved, Munsu is surprised to discover that the young man had put all of his faith in becoming the type of mystic warrior (an Amen Osa) that Munsu himself just so happens to be.
The ensuing story takes several twists and turns, many of which come on quickly and leave little time for viewer remorse. Within no time, Munsu finds himself on a wild escapade with a beautiful (and nearly perpetually-half-naked) bodyguard (or Sando in this mythos) named Chun Hyang.
The show can best be described as an action-piece with some truly awesome battle scenes that combine CGI techniques with cell animation nearly flawlessly. Beneath the beautiful visuals and quick-paced action lies a more tragic tale that works on so many subtle levels. Especially effective is the antihero tones associated with the lead character. While fighting for justice, he is commonly forced to resort to violence, manipulation, deceit, and trickery, yet in the end his undeniable sense of righteousness (and confidence) that prevails.
The title of this OVA hints toward Munsu's true ability, which is to summon a phantom army that fight at his beckoning call (which in this case involves the revealing of his three-horsed medallion). The undead warriors are chillingly fantastic in appearance and animation- Think mustached masks straight out of V for Vendetta, with long-drooping jester hats, and statures of some 10-foot in height. When these guys appear, it's on!
This coupled to Munsu's penchant for blasting baddies with his firearms (pistols, rifles), and exploding long strings of dynamite, the formula for cool visuals is complete and the sound score backs up the eye-candy perfectly. Musical numbers are sweeping and dramatic but fall away to subtle tension with uncanny seamlessness.
Voice work is fairly spectacular in both the original Japanese dialog and the English dub. As most true anime fans will attest, the English dub usually falls short of the emotional range captured by the Japanese actor counterparts, but that's simply not the case here. The emotion, conviction, and sound mix in the English revision are every bit as moving as the original, giving fans a true choice when they sit down to view the show.
My only complaint (and the only factor keeping this film from earning a perfect 5-star score) is the fact that the movie assumes that the viewer is up to speed on the mythos of the show (presumably through the ongoing manga) before even starting out. I don't mean to suggest that the movie won't make sense to said individuals (since I was one myself going in) but little things like the breathing condition that affects Munsu (like asthma) and requires a sort-of inhaler was the result of a spell placed upon him. Or that he is seeking vengeance on the man who killed his best friend (the king of Jushin); an act that ultimately led to the fall of the land, is mentioned but never fully explained either. These elements are not only incredibly interesting; they could have really shed some light on the characters' motivations throughout.
I was forced to dig up these facts through online research after the film concluded since I was left wanting to know more about this spectacularly assembled story.
As it stands, this is pretty close to animated perfection and while it doesn't seem likely that any more anime episodes of this tale will be made in the future, I can attest with confidence that after absorbing this film, you'll wish they would reconsider!